Review: Live performance returns to Atlanta Symphony Hall

Conductor Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the "Star Spangled Banner," a tradition before every season-opening concert. / Courtesy of Rand Lines

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Conductor Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the "Star Spangled Banner," a tradition before every season-opening concert. / Courtesy of Rand Lines

In the hands of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, one of Beethoven’s most familiar symphonies took on different shadings Thursday, interpreting the communal anger, frustration and fear of the still very-present coronavirus pandemic.

An all-Beethoven program highlighting the fifth symphony and the “Emperor” piano concerto could seem like an auto-pilot evening. After all, Robert Spano, who led the orchestra in this season-opening concert, and the ASO musicians have performed these crowd-pleasers so often they could have difficulty making the pieces sound vital. Perhaps the night was to be a final warmup, an easing into performance for a group of musicians who hadn’t performed for a live audience in Symphony Hall since March 2020. Not on Thursday. Were the strings brighter? Was the brass more forceful? Musical phrases I had never before noticed rose out of the ensemble, shocking me.

In the first movement of the symphony, the accented chords in the famous beginning became a visceral punch. The second movement arose as a gauzy cloud of strings, a carefree, skipping melody emerging from the ether giving way to a stentorian, martial tune ringing out from the horn section. Spano and the orchestra maximized the work’s contrasts in texture and dynamic, bringing a certain pulsing electricity to the symphony.

The impact of the coronavirus is still a very present concern at Symphony Hall. A vaccination requirement for ASO attendance, or at least proof of a negative test within 72 hours, came down August 23, the day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. Though there was no mandated distancing in the seating (distancing is reportedly more commonplace overseas; organizations there don’t fret as much over ticket sales due to government support), the vast majority of patrons hewed to the mask rule, keeping coverings firmly on faces. On stage, the string players, percussionists and Spano wore masks. All performers and ASO staff have been vaccinated as well, and the organization advertises a relatively new “HVAC ionization system” in the hall. Even with the Delta variant raging, the room felt safe.

It’s also comforting to see Spano at the center of it all. The conductor was supposed to be long gone to ASO semi-retirement by now, connected to the symphony only by a reputation acquired across two decades in Atlanta and a return appearance for a few concerts every season. But Spano and conductor Donald Runnicles are sharing artistic director duties this season, and Spano will be around for many, many more shows. This season is the proper goodbye Spano didn’t receive due to the pandemic.

During the second half of Thursday’s program, longtime ASO guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, known as “Emperor.” Ohlsson played with an intense tenderness, striking the keys with finality but also gently. As with the opening symphony, the ASO played the slower movements masterfully, making these gradual-growth pieces take on a new dimension. Being away from the hall for so long, I thought I had most missed the tenacious attack of the ASO playing out with triple-forte force, screaming through their instruments, but Thursday I lived for the quiet, tender moments that frequently arose. Ohlsson’s lullaby encore, the second movement to Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata, was a fitting end to a long-needed reunion.

How long does this feeling of joy and gratitude for simply sitting in the red velvet seats of Symphony Hall, listening to a live concert, last? This overwhelming sensation, of course, shouldn’t be confused with an uncritical eye. But the pure elation to be once again a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra audience was enough to cover any minor performance quibbles.

The impact of an extended absence, filled with great uncertainty and anxiety about every trip to the grocery store or distanced meeting with friends, can not be discounted. Atlanta needed this. How long will this feeling last? Why not forever?

CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Sept. 9. Additional performances at 8 p.m. Sept. 10 and 11. $34-$019. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.